It’s official: German referees hate USA Soccer. Marcus Merk effectively eliminated the USA from the 2006 World Cup by calling a ridiculous penalty against Oguchi Onyewu. Today it was Wolfgang Starg’s turn. He dealt a devastating blow to the USA’s chances of advancing by ejecting USA defender Michael Orozco for a petulent elbow in the 3rd minute of the final game of the first round in which the USA needed a draw. Not all the blame can be placed on Starg’s shoulders. It was a foolish risk for Orozco to take: there was absolutely no reason for the cheap shot even if it was a rather impish blow. The Nigerian player who received the blow did not help. He did what most soccer players would do: fall to the ground and pretend like he was shot.
For those first three minutes the USA looked great: confident, smart, fast. The effort cannot be faulted. Nowak shifted the team to a 4-4-1 with Robbie Rogers dropping to play left fullback and Jozy Altidore moving into the midfield and it responded well. Nigeria created some chances as you would expect a team playing with an extra man might. It scored a nice goal after Michael Parkhurst got skinned on the edge of the box near the end line and a cross was played past two USA defenders into the path of the Nigerian captain who side-footed the ball into the goal. Parkhurst should have done better for sure. Marvell Wynne could’ve also been more aggressive in closing down the player after he beat Parkhurst. Credit the Nigerians though. The goal was well-earned.
The best chances for the USA came on counter-attacks. Like he has throughout the tournament, Wynne used his speed to burst down the right sideline on a few occasions only to make a poor decision or cross poorly. His poor final touch was not entirely his fault, however. McBride’s runs in the box were uninspired. I didn’t see him cut to the near post once, which would’ve been a nice option for Wynne. McBride was completely ineffective today. I don’t understand why Nowak left him on for the full 90 minutes. Jozy Altidore was subbed off at half-time for Benny Feilhaber after looking uncomfortable in the midfield. Altidore also is reportedly still suffering from an ankle injury. I would have liked to see Charlie Davies come on at that point and have the US shift to three defenders…or if not then, than for McBride around the 60th minute rather than Davies for Holden in the 77th minute. The other substitute Nowak used was Dax McCarty. McCarty came on for Danny Szetela in the 69th minute. Szetela played very well, very committed in the tackle and smart in his passing. Stuart Holden was similarly solid. He was again precise with his passes, strong in the tackle and precise with his set piece delivery. Sacha Kljestan had sharp and dull moments; he lost the ball too often in his defensive half, but he was the most dangerous, probing player moving forward. Robbie Rogers was forced to shelve his tricks and focus on defense for the most part. He never looked comfortable, but still did the job admirably. Edu had another solid game in the middle of defense.
Collectively the USA played extremely well, including the substitutes. There was a lack of urgency. It wasn’t until Holland scored against Japan in the other match that the USA began throwing numbers forward. Knowing it now needed a result, the USA attacked with reckless abandon. In the 88th minute it was rewarded a penalty when Feilhaber was taken out by the Nigerian goalkeeper. Kljestan expertly finished and the relentless attack continued. In stoppage time Davies was the most dangerous player: he created space for himself and drilled a low shot that was saved and he headed a McCarty set piece off the crossbar. The USA were an inch from the quarterfinals. Three days ago they were 30 seconds away. Now they are half a world away.